The Victoria & Albert Museum’s (V&A) latest exhibition, All of This Belongs to You, turns the spotlight back on itself, questioning its role as a public museum.
It has been timed to coincide with the General Election campaigns, a time when the UK public are engaged in a democratic process. This, the museum suggests, is an apt time to examine the importance of public institutions and its own responsibility for holding a national collection, acting as ‘a laboratory for public life’ and looking at how design defines civic identity, democracy and the urban experience.
Can it fulfil its lofty ambitions? Perhaps, but only in part. Only die-hard V&A enthusiasts – of which there are many – will really get it.
Spread through the sprawling museum, as well as online, the exhibition features four site-specific installations by architects, two online-only commissions and other items dotted around the galleries. Each offers a very different take on the theme.
Exhibits range from a tracksuit worn “with pride” by all Shenzhen students (the subject of multiple selfies by Shenzhen tourists), and the mashed-up entrails of the Guardian computer that contained Edward Snowden’s leaked data.
Many of exhibits are thought provoking and pertinent to the exhibition theme. One particular highlight is The ethics of dust: Trajan’s Column, a piece by New York-based architectural preservationist Jorge Otero-Pailos. The striking piece focuses on the museum’s duty of care to its vast collection. Using a giant condom-like tube of latex, Otero-Pailos cleaned the hollow inside of the 24-metre cast of Trajan’s Column (the largest item in the V&A) and displayed it alongside the original. Lit from within, the glowing monolith bears the dust and dirt accumulated over 150 years on the internal brickwork that supports the column.
“It’s interesting that the 1872 chimney within, which is exactly the same as those built in the Victorian era, was an emblem of pollution,” says Otero-Pailos. “Paradoxically, a lot of people were already worried about climate change in the nineteenth century, and the casts were made to save the great treasures of Europe.”
Muf Architecture, the politically engaged collective that focuses on public realm architecture, is hosting a series of activities in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries. The area was originally designed as an archetypal public space, and Muf has dug sculptures of standing figures, an arch and a fountain out of the V&A archives for the exhibition, to revive its former life.
However, a lengthy explanation from Muf cofounder Liza Fior left journalists on the press preview with knotted brows and only a minimal understanding of the objects’ relevance to the exhibition. It appeared to be a disparate collection of many ideas, rather than one fully formed one.
The structure of the exhibition mirrors that of the museum, a jumble of treasures that allows even the most seasoned visitor to chance on things – whole wings even – they’ve never seen before.
Maps of the exhibition are available at the front desk to guide people through the maze that is the V&A. However the exhibits can also be enjoyed in isolation. This is both a positive and negative because the lack of geographical and conceptual cohesion seems to dilute the overall aim of stimulating discussion on design, politics and the role of public entities.
In theory it belongs to all of us, in reality it’s a hard-earned honour that only the most dedicated museum goers are likely to achieve.